The Hip-Hop Hype: Black Males Battle Stereotypes

As high school graduation and incarceration rates suffer, young African-American males are under more pressure than ever to overcome negative stereotypes. Many question whether hip-hop is helping them or hurting them.

Washington- Last month's launch of the Millions More Movement 10 years after the Million Man March brought scores of black men together to fight prejudice was the latest effort to try to eliminate negative stereotypes of black men - with the rise of hip-hop as a hotly debated flash point.

"The image of blacks in America is a very stereotypic image," said Dr. Benjamin Chavis Muhammad, who was national director of the Million Man March. "One of the key reasons we had that demonstration 10 years ago was to challenge the image of black males as worthless, non-responsible - a menace to society."

Muhammad argues that the popularity of hip-hop has dispelled the stereotype, although others say hip-hop hurts the image of black men.

"With the rise and evolution of hip-hop, I would argue that hip-hop has brought a more multi-faceted spectrum of images of black males," Muhammad said.

Blue Williams, who manages OutKast, grew up with the hip-hop culture.

"Hip-hop was something that was ours, something we could embrace," Williams said. "It mattered, the dress, clothes -- it was a culture."

Not all blacks think that hip-hop reflects positively on African-American males.

"Gangsta rap music is candy and that's it," said John McWhorter, an author who comments on race, language and cultural issues. "It's not deep and it's not advice."

Muhammad says such criticism of rap music is shortsighted.

"All rappers are not gangsta rappers," he said. "I think Kanye West and Common offer a positive role model image for black males, but that is not to say that 50 Cent, Snoop Dogg and others don't also offer a positive image."

Williams agreed, noting that "there's a middle ground to hip-hop, just like there's a middle ground to rock and roll."

"The problem is that American culture has such an inbred sense of racism, we don't even realize that anything that shows black men speaking in high voices and being aggressive is going to be perceived badly," he said.

McWhorter admits that not all rap music is of the gangsta persuasion, but sometimes it's hard to tell.

"It's not an accident that the [artists] on the magazines, headliners for concerts, the tone of [their] music is bullet wounds, guns, a dismissive attitude towards women - that's the tone of the industry," he said.

Beyond hip-hop music, the hip-hop culture also is embodied by the stereotype of young black men in baggy shorts and black sneakers seeking fame as athletes as a way to get out of the city.

"It's like Biggie said," said Jalen Rose of the NBA's Toronto Raptors. "' Either you're slingin' crack rock or you got a wicked jumpshot.'" Rose was part of the Fab 5, five highly touted freshmen who were as famous for their fashion statements (baggy shorts, black sneakers and socks) as they were for taking the University of Michigan's basketball team to the NCAA championship game in 1992 and 1993. Rose said that going from inner-city Detroit to national fame in one year was a big change.

"I was exposed to what a lot of people consider corporate America; me being a confident kid from Detroit trying to be an NBA player," Rose said. "But then the stereotype that comes with that is if I wear big shorts, black shoes or black socks and have a bald head, that makes me a thug."

Rose stressed the importance of school in changing stereotypes - and reality - for black men. A Manhattan Institute study in 2003 found that only 51 percent of black students graduate high school and only 20 percent of all black students leave high school "college-ready" - having basic literacy, taking courses that adequately prepared students for college and earning a high school diploma.

"The number one thing that drives everything is education," Rose says. "Times have changed where you can graduate from eighth grade or with a high school diploma and get an 80,000- or 90,000-dollar a year job." Rose practices what he preaches. After leaving school after his junior year in 1994, Rose recently completed his degree through online courses.

McWhorter said blacks should realize some progress has been made.

"Our job now is to make the best of things because that's a lot easier for us than it would have been even 40 years ago," he says. "Don't prepare yourself for a battle because people who came before you have already fought those battles."

-Eric Crouch, Medill News Service